2020 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: CheerNotes, Carnegie Mellon (Tepper)


MBA Program: Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University

Industry: Retail

Founding Student Name(s): Asha Banks

Brief Description of Solution: Less than 7% of greeting cards from market-leading brands attempt to have diverse representation. We offer a carefully-curated selection of inclusive greeting cards for people who want designs that authentically reflect their relationships and experiences. We’re amplifying the work of 10 diverse artists and counting while providing an increasingly easier way to discover and share cards.

Funding Dollars: $0, Bootstrapped

What led you to launch this venture? I’ve felt the frustration of searching high-and-low for cards with the likeness of my family and friends, and I recognize the gap is well beyond the lack of cultural representation. I was inspired to create CheerNotes because I value self-expression and authentic connections. My past work with artists, commitment to social activism and previous profession of problem solving as an engineer and consultant encouraged me to close this gap in a new way.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? The ultimate accomplishment has been when people tell me how they feel seen and are so excited to see designs that resonate with them in a unique way. Messages like the one below affirm that we are on the right track; “I LOVE YOUR SITE AND CARDS!!! As someone who grew up in Canada as an Indian and in an immigrant family, so many of your cards strike a particular chord. For decades we’ve been forced to buy cards that have a white bride with a white gown for an Indian wedding. Thank you for being so thoughtful.” This message was received not long after being accepted as 1 of 8 startups accepted to Target Corporation’s 2020 Incubator cohort.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? My entire MBA journey was focused on diving into entrepreneurship and expanding on what I’ve learned since starting my first business in grade school. I was surrounded by supportive, like-minded classmates and professors and quickly tapped into the cross-collaborative nature of CMU once I was inducted into the highly selective James R. Swartz Entrepreneurial Fellows program for graduate students that demonstrate entrepreneurial potential and leadership skills. I have had the opportunity to truly learn by doing and receive constant feedback. This includes taking our Lean Entrepreneurship course during my first semester on campus, pitching the idea during FrIdeas hosted by our Graduate Entrepreneurship Club, and later using CheerNotes as the focus of projects in multiple courses and my capstone within the full 2nd year of my MBA program.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? Madam C.J. Walker was my earliest, and remains my greatest, entrepreneurial inspiration. My first product-based company was inspired by the unmet hair care needs of African Americans in the early 2000s while in junior high school. I remembered learning about Madam C.J. Walker years before and always admired her bravery and the action she put behind her curiosity and thirst for knowledge. She showed me that there weren’t imitations on what I could learn or do, only limiting mindsets. As someone who always seeks to hold the door open when I’ve made it into a room, I appreciated that she incorporated helping other women build something of the,ir own by using her platform as a launch pad. In so many ways, she inspired me to think big, act bigger and pour this enthusiasm into others along the way.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? Marketing Communication for Consumer Brands taught by Professor Melissa Murphy was one of the most impactful courses that I continue to reference as I build CheerNotes. Our final paper was focused on dissecting an iconic brand through the lens of the frameworks, strategies, and tactics we learned throughout the course. My paper on Veuve Clicquot helped me really understand underlying elements of a centuries-old iconic brand that has continuously evolved and claimed its stake in the hearts and minds of so many generations. It became my conviction to give energy to the CheerNotes brand in that way from the beginning, even as we are still learning about ourselves. That’s because I consider it to be the only way we can really be of service to our customers’ needs. Professor Murphy was gracious enough to provide actionable feedback on what I’d come up with for CheerNotes well after I’d taken her class. I’m so thankful for that type of lasting support and genuine interest of our professors.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? Dave Mawhinney was my Lean Entrepreneurship professor and is also the Director of Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship. While I was still researching schools, I was encouraged to reach out to Mawhinney to learn more about the entrepreneurial ecosystem at CMU and throughout Pittsburgh. I figured it was a long shot that he would even have time to respond to my email but he immediately offered to set up time to have a call. That was the first of many moments Mawhinney demonstrated his commitment to being a champion for entrepreneurs. He has heard me talk through three distinct ideas during my time at Tepper and provided invaluable feedback and challenge that has helped me confidently invalidate or validate the strength of each one. Deciding to work on CheerNotes full time post-graduation was a pretty big decision for me. Having him as a mentor throughout the program – and as I worked on CheerNotes as my MBA Capstone – helped me fully evaluate the decision just as much as it helped me understand the viability of my business.

How did the pandemic impact your startup plans? I dedicated most of Spring Break to clarifying my business focus for the next quarter and developing an internship program to welcome 2-3 students. As time went on, the reality set in that school (and most likely my summer internship) would have the challenge of being 100% virtual. I’d already begun building relationships with various departments across campus and immediately tapped into virtual recruiting opportunities.

Not long after, the Swartz Center communicated that many students had their internships snatched from major companies so various programs wanted to know if resident startups could offer opportunities. Since I had a clear view of the priorities and possible projects for CheerNotes, I adjusted the number of roles I could offer and shared the opportunities I could offer to undergraduate and graduate students. Over 30 candidates and about 45 interviews later, I was able to offer seven part-time internships. This unexpected opportunity was a blessing that I didn’t take lightly. I used this opportunity to not only learn from this new experience of being a direct manager of a cross-functional team, but to also better understand how to help establish the type of culture I envisioned for CheerNotes. As a business, we were able to lean into our value proposition as a way to connect from afar. We even had the support of Tepper’s Graduate Business Association and Administration to create a custom card for the MBA classes of 2020 and 2021 to bring the school year to a close in a uniquely Tepper way!

What is your long-term goal with your startup? Our goal is to make it increasingly easier to discover designs that perfectly capture the essence of moments and relationships for communities that have been traditionally overlooked. We want to leverage technology to make gifting more personalized and accessible. We want to normalize diverse representation in greeting cards so that years from now, the surprise and joy you feel when you receive a card isn’t just because it simply attempted to represent you. It actually feels uniquely perfect for you.


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